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Eden Hurst tugged his neck cloth loose from amidst the heavy ruffles of his shirt, flung himself into his great carved chair and put his feet up on his desk. Ten minutes of peace and quiet, he promised himself. Then back down the corridor to Madame’s room to flatter and reassure in the midst of enough blooms to fill a conservatory.
Why she needed reassurance after a reception like tonight, Heaven only knew, but he had sensed a petulance that must be soothed. Ever since she had reluctantly agreed to return to England after years on the Continent she had been on edge, more demanding, more insecure, and the return tour while the renovations were carried out had only made things worse.
Perhaps the light of the new gas lamps was unkind when her dresser finally creamed away the greasepaint. He would have the oil lamps on their stands brought back into her dressing room. Anything to keep the star of the Unicorn happy.
Feet still on the desk, he leaned forward and reached for his notebook to add oil lamps to the never-ending list of things to be done. His groping fingers nudged a pile of stiff cards, sending them to the floor. They lay face up, yesterday’s social obligations.
Eden dropped his head back and stared at the ceiling, oblivious to the cracks that created fantasy maps over its grey surface. Was it worth it, allowing himself to be lionised by Corwin and his vulgar wife? He shut his eyes, annoyed with himself for revisiting a decision that had already been made. He needed an investor if he was to continue to make the improvements the Unicorn needed to keep it in the forefront of London’s smaller theatres, and he needed a damn sight more cash than the gas lights had cost him if he were to finally persuade the owner to sell it to him.
Through his agents he had bought several small theatres around the country over the past two years as investments, leaving them in the hands of managers while he continued to tour Europe with Madame. Then had come word of the kind of theatre he had been dreaming of ever since he had stepped onto a stage, and he sold them all to raise the money to restore the Unicorn. It had meant coming to England and it had meant risking everything on a building that was not his own, but Eden Hurst had learned to trust his gut instincts in business and was prepared to be ruthless with himself, and with Madame, if necessary.
He could stomach Corwin, even Mrs Corwin in her purple toque, at a pinch. What was tightening his gut was the thought of the simpering Miss Corwins: Miss Calenthe, Miss Calliope and Miss Coraline. One of them was the price Corwin was going to ask for his investment, Eden was sure. He’d marry a Corwin daughter over his dead body and he’d been certain of managing the thing tactfully in the end. Certain - until he’d heard the girls giggling and plotting together in the overheated conservatory.
No time to think about that now. He lowered his feet back to the threadbare Turkey carpet, twitched his neckcloth into order and ran his hands through his over-long hair. Outside his office the corridor was deserted, with all the noise and the activity coming from the stage where they were striking the sets in one direction, and the Green Room where the actors were entertaining their friends and admirers in the other.
Eden took a deep breath and stopped. Gardenia was not a familiar scent in the utilitarian passage outside his office door. Nor was the rustle of silk skirts from the shadows expected. As he realised it, he saw her, an indistinct form in the alcove opposite. Young, slender – he could tell that from the way she moved, the glimpse of white skin at neck and breast.
Those accursed girls. He had thought himself safe for a day or two while they perfected their scheme to ensure that one of them was comprehensively compromised by him. But no, here was the first of them, it was irrelevant which. If he pretended not to have seen her and went to the Green Room she would be into his office, probably prepared to strip off for maximum effect when he returned, with or without a witness. And he was damned if he was going to stand here and shout for help in his own theatre, which seemed the only other option.
Or was it? Perhaps he could scare the living daylights out of her. Eden smiled grimly, took a long step forward and caught the half-seen figure by the shoulders. She came easily, with a little gasp, like a maid into her lover’s arms, he thought with habitual cynicism, just before he took her mouth. Hard.
She had been kissed before. At the age of twenty five, and after several Seasons energetically avoiding becoming betrothed, Maude had flirted with sufficient young gentlemen and had dallied in enough drawing rooms to have experienced everything from gauche wet ineptitude, to boldly snatched kisses, to shyly gentle caresses.
But she had never been kissed by a man who knew what he was doing and had no inhibitions about doing it thoroughly. How he managed it she had no idea, but one minute she was hiding in a dark alcove, poised to step forward and introduce herself and the next she was moulded against the long hard body of a male who was quite frankly and obviously aroused, whose lips were crushed to hers and whose tongue was taking full possession of her mouth.
For a moment she froze, passive with shock in his grip. Then her mind began to work and caught up with her body, already pliant in his arms. It was Eden Hurst who was kissing her. She had dreamt of this for months and now it was happening. Hazily she acknowledged that he had no clue who she was and that he also appeared to be thoroughly out of temper, but just now that did not matter.
Maude found her fingers were laced in his hair, that romantic mane of black that gave him such an exotic appearance. Her breasts were pressed to his chest so that the swell of her bosom was chaffed by the brocade weave of his waistcoat and against hers his heart was beating, disconcertingly out of stroke with her pulse. But she was only peripherally aware of those tantalising discomforts. Her entire world was focused on what he was doing to her mouth and the devilish skill with which he was doing it.
Should a kiss make the soft flesh of her inner thighs quiver and ache? Should the insolent thrust of his tongue send shafts of desire deep into her belly, setting going an intimate pulse that made her want to twine her legs around his and press herself hard against him?
He growled, a warning she did not heed, was incapable of taking, then his hands slid to cup her buttocks and he pulled her up against him so that the ridge of his erection pressed into the delta of her thighs. Now she knew what her body was searching for. Roughly he pushed her back to the hard wall, letting the movement rock them intimately until she was moaning in total surrender against his mouth.
And then, just when she would have gone to the floor with him, done anything if only his mouth had stayed on hers, he released her, all but one hand, and stepped back. He reached behind him to fling open the office door and the light spilled out across her face when he tugged her into its path.
‘Now let that be a lesson - Hell and damnation,’ Eden Hurst said quietly, loosing her wrist. ‘You aren’t one of the Corwin girls.’
‘No, I am not.’ Thank God, I can still articulate. She reached out one hand to the wall beside her, unsure whether her legs would be as obedient as her voice. ‘I am Lady Maude Templeton, Mr Hurst.’
‘Then why the hell did you let me kiss you?’ he demanded with what she could only characterise as a total lack of reasonableness.
‘One, you took me by surprise, two you are somewhat stronger than I am and three, you are very good at it,’ she said coolly. This was not the moment to cast herself into his arms and declare her undying love. Besotted she might be, but she had her pride. One of these days he was going to tell her he loved her, but he needed to find that out for himself.